Power Plant of the Week - Wheelabrator Saugus

Along the Salem Turnpike (Rt 107) on the edge of Saugus lies the Wheelabrator Saugus municipal solid waste to energy facility. It's located adjacent to the Rumney Marsh wetlands which are a striking example of nature's resiliency. Wheelabrator is a wholly owned subsidiary of Waste Management (NYSE: WM) and was a pioneer in the municipal solid waste to energy business. 

The Wheelebrator Saugus plant, constructed in 1975, was one of the first modern waste to energy facilities constructed in the U.S. with pollution control mechanisms. It can generate approximately 38 MW and process up to 1,500 tons of municipal solid waste (aka trash) each day. In addition to revenues from taking municipal solid waste and selling electricity, this plant also makes substantial revenues from recycling ferrous metals. Despite recycling programs in most North Shore towns, a significant amount of recyclable material still ends up in the waste stream. If the waste goes to a modern waste to energy facility, its very likely that the recyclable metals will be harvested and sold for scrap.

Wheelabrator Saugus, photo taken from Wheelabrator website.

Wheelabrator Saugus, photo taken from Wheelabrator website.

Currently, the following towns send their waste to Wheelabrator Saugus: Beverly; Chelsea; Everett; Gloucester; Ipswich; Lynn; Malden; Marblehead; Medford; Milton; Norwood; Revere; Rockport; Saugus; Swampscott; and Woburn. If you live in one of these towns, please don't throw mercury or other hazardous materials into the garbage. 

While waste to energy plants are generally positive for the environment and our electric grid, there are many environmental regulations that these facilities must comply with. Wheelabrator Saugus has had some compliance issues in the last few years. In 2011, the MA Attorney General's office investigated the plant for several alleged violations of environmental laws and permit requirements. Although Wheelabrator Saugus did not admit to wrongdoing, they reached a settlement with the AG's office that required them to pay $7.5M in compensatory payments to various parties. Although its unlikely that plant personnel intentionally tried to harm the environment, the violations alleged by the AG illustrate that these plants are difficult to run, are heavily regulated, and compliance can be a challenge when there are many aspects of the plant's operations that require managerial and financial resources. The current era of low power prices also stresses the economics of these plants. Its also important to remember that their input fuel is garbage, which by definition is filthy. Maintaining compliance with all permits and regulations is made more difficult by people who throw things in the trash that don't belong there, like mercury containing items, old pesticides, vehicle fluids, etc. 

At ETE, we think that waste to energy facilities are preferable to landfills and there are some very exciting new developments in waste to energy technologies. The new generation of waste to energy technology is superior to the current fleet of plants put into service in the 1970s and 80s and ETE hopes that policy makers create incentives to spur the next generation of waste to energy facilities to be built in Massachusetts as the current facilities approach the end of their useful lives. Massachusetts has recently taken steps to open the door to new builds for next generation waste to energy technologies and ETE hopes that we'll see a few get built within the next decade.